Don’t mess with Texas

Raven-haired, with a smile prettier than a Texas sunset, Terri Hall, like most folks from the ‘Lone Star’ state, is also unflinchingly polite. So speaking ill of others is out of the question.

Hence, she expresses no more than a modest feeling of vindication when, in October, credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service relegates ‘SH 130 Concession Company’ to junk bond status.

“Yup, I’m pretty happy about that,” she says.

The company is majority owned by Cintra, a private partner in the toll road lease of State Highway 130 (SH 130) in state capital Austin. Thanks in no small part to Hall, Cintra isn’t much liked in Texas. The numbers speak of that sentiment: traffic on the highway is anemic, and Moody’s is predicting the public-private partnership (PPP; P3) will default next June.

But why is Hall, a San Antonio resident and small business owner, denouncing SH 130? Just as importantly, how could her campaign prove effective?

The US has been watching Hall’s breed of citizen activist steadily gain a more prominent national voice, beginning with the 2008 election of Democrat Barack Obama to the White House. An ongoing power vacuum on the Republican right has allowed Hall and her ilk to stoke the flames of political resentment.

And if infrastructure is a political hot potato on Capitol Hill, then the even more polarising topic of infrastructure-related P3s – especially toll roads – is a magnet for protest.

TEA PARTY AFFILIATION

In the US, in 2013, starting a grassroots movement just isn’t a politically correct thing to do; naming it ‘Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom’ (TURF) is akin to holding a casting call to the far-right fringe.

But TURF is in fact bipartisan. Yes, the 100,000-strong outfit led by Hall is associated with the Tea Party, which is also against SH 130, but TURF is also working with the left. Plus there are ‘green’ or environmentally conscious organisations, against the private use of public land.

“Y’all economists are probably better able to explain it than me,” a self-effacing Hall says while detailing reasons why TURF is against the lease of SH 130. But TURF’s main message is forceful and simple.

“We’re against PPPs,” Hall states. “We have no objection to toll roads. P3s are using public money and public land to earn a profit off Texans and socialising the losses.”

Cintra, meanwhile, is persona non grata: the toll road operator raised the speed limit for the 41-mile SH 130 to 80 miles-per-hour while pushing to “manipulate” a lower speed limit on competing routes, according to Hall. There’s also the fact that Cintra is headquartered in Madrid, Spain.

“That Cintra is foreign doesn’t sit well with a lot of Texans,” Hall confirms.

TRANS-TEXAS LEGACY

Opened to the public in September, SH 130 is a $1.3 billion deal with a 50-year lease – the longest term allowed under state law.

SH 130 is also the remaining vestige of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) project, what would have been a network of ‘super-corridors’ built with private capital. Throughout the mid-2000s, foreign PPP developers like Cintra pursued the mega-project. By 2011, the state had formally canceled TTC.

Hall says she’s aware that Cintra, should SH 130 fail, might attempt to “stick the taxpayer with the loss…we’ll be mad about that, too”.

At this point, underestimating her – and her impact upon public opinion – would be foolish.